China is seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases, while U.S. officials are concerned that year-end holidays could reignite this virus. Experts worry that the disease is still very fatal, but people are becoming complacent.
“It’s almost as if the whole world wants to just move on and say that this is over,” Michael Osterholm, Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, University of Minnesota, told MPR News host Cathy Wurzer on Wednesday.
He said that there is a high cost to lives if the world falls behind. He was referring to the Fram oil filter commercials that stated, “You can either pay me now or later.” This is exactly where I see COVID right now.
This transcript has been edited to improve clarity. You can listen to the broadcast using the audio player above.
What impact will the explosion in infections in China have on the rest of the globe?
First of all, it’s utterly surprising that the Chinese government handles this way. This raises questions about global governance.
I was there last January when they said that zero COVID was no longer possible, as the omicron viruses were so much more contagious. They tried to achieve that, and failed, but they suppressed it a little.
They didn’t prepare for what would happen if there wasn’t a zero COVID strategy. Only [.5]% of the country had been immunized in the past six months. Even though they used a lower vaccine, there was no increase in hospital capacity or public health improvements.
This is especially true when they allow it to rip, which they are doing right now. We are witnessing China being brought to its knees. This is a serious health problem. If you ask what this means for the rest of us, it will likely be two things. The first is that global supply chains are crashing, and this has to do China. Many of the global supply chains that provide so many goods and drugs come from China.
The second is that the virus is rapidly moving through millions and even millions of people. This allows it to go through the mutation changes we worry about.
Each variant may be more dangerous, more susceptible to evading immune protection, or even more resistant to previous infections for immunity. We are concerned that this could spark or even reignite a global COVID challenge. These new viruses are coming from China.
People mixing for holidays raises concerns about a possible surge in the country. What is the immediate outlook?
It’s not good, it seems to me. We have what I call a shifting baseline moment, where everyone agrees that 460 deaths per day is not too bad. There used to be 2,000 to 3,000 deaths per day. People forget that at 460 deaths per day, there are still 150,000 deaths each year. This is compared to lung cancer which, at 350 deaths per day, is the leading cause of death. We don’t believe that this is a trivial problem.
We can’t afford to be satisfied with the current situation. Those numbers could rise. The other challenge we face right now is getting people vaccinated.
These vaccines have been shown to significantly reduce the chance of serious illness, death and hospitalization, especially for people over 65. Yet, only a small percentage of Americans are getting this dose. This puts us in a situation where we are likely to experience more severe illness, hospitalizations, and even deaths.
What are your thoughts on the most significant advances in COVID-19 research from 2022?
We have come to accept the fact that the virus evolves and changes through mutations. It was exactly one year ago that we first saw the omicron virus take flight.
Let me tell you, the current situation in China presents a significant threat to transmission. This virus is just as dangerous in China as measles virus.
This virus is capable of changing, as we’ve seen. You’ll be able to do even more damage over time. That’s it.
The second thing I believe is that people have had enough of the pandemic. They’re done. Unfortunately, the virus isn’t over yet. So, I believe that this is one of the biggest challenges we face.